Sturm und Drang

It's been a long time since I dipped into this Bible.

In 1996, I got an early inheritance: my father's piano. My parents had two grand pianos in their living room, a 1926 Schiller and a 1932 Cable, and were about to buy another, a brand new Kawai. Two grand pianos is two more than most houses have, and one more than most of the remaining, piano-owning, homes; it's something I've only seen in the homes of full-time piano teachers. In any case, having three in that living room (along with the full-size church organ) was clearly out of the question, so the Cable came to live with me.

It had been several years since I'd had a piano in my home, and I went slightly nuts over the thing. On my next trip to Portland (I was living in McMinnville at the time), I dropped by the Sheet Music Service (remember that store?) and picked up a complete two-volume set of Beethoven's piano sonatas. There were a few I wanted very badly to learn, but this was about more than adding the "Waldstein" to my repertoire. I was going to play all of them. Slowly.

That's what I did. Starting on page 1 of the first volume, I worked my way through all 32 sonatas. It took me months, and much of it was extremely frustrating--some of them are written in horrendous keys, and modulate into minor moods with seven sharps or flats, plus double-accidentals--but I soldiered through them. It was like the discipline I set myself in high school, and again the year after I finished grad school, to read the Bible from cover to cover. By the time I finished, I had learned many things: that Beethoven was even more brilliant than I'd thought; that much of the dissonance and complicated rhythm I'd believed was invented by twentieth century composers had, in fact, already been worked out a hundred years earlier; and most importantly, that I was not nearly as good a pianist as I had thought myself to be. Playing these sonatas did vastly improve my abilities to play in all the major and minor keys, so by the time I was done, I was much better than I had been. But I was never going to be a concert pianist.

Four years later, newly re-divorced and now ejected from ministry, I undertook this exercise again, but with a difference: now I had a great deal more time on my hand. Now I could linger on passages that were especially difficult, not moving on until I at least had a handle on them. Most importantly, now I could concentrate on a few sonatas I really did want to be able to play, even if I could never master them. I focused in on two in particular: the "Pathetique" and the "Waldstein."

"Pathetique" I had always loved because in so many ways it embodied the spirit of "Sturm und Drang" (storm and stress), a movement within the classic era that prefigured romanticism, and which was always best embodied by Beethoven. This sonata, in C Minor, anticipates so much about Beethoven's troubled life: the loneliness, the growing deafness that robbed him of the pleasure of hearing his own music performed, the fist constantly shaken at the powers and principalities of both this world and the next. Thundering, ominous chords, give way to rushing wrath, then take a break for one of the most soothing slow movements ever written. But peace cannot abide for long, and soon we're plunging into a furious rondo that ends with one last flash of lightning. It's brilliant music, exciting to listen to, a thrill to play. I spent many an hour trying to master it well enough to be able to perform it, but the only movement I got to that level of playing was the peaceful middle. (I actually performed that at a wedding I conducted a few years later.)

It's been a long time since I dipped into this musical holy book--more than a decade, in fact. In the intervening years, I've become a much better pianist, learning to play jazz, gospel, and pop music, to improvise freely, and to play for improvisers. I've also had several church jobs. And I've been teaching piano lessons for ten years. I'm as confident playing now as I once was preaching, and frankly, I communicate better at a keyboard than I ever did in the pulpit. I'm no longer afraid of playing in difficult keys; in fact, they're almost all alike to me--at least, when I'm faking.

Tonight, I decided to test whether all that improvising and faking could translate to Beethoven. I went to the bookcase and came back with the sonatas, and opened to "Pathetique."

What happened was not unlike getting on a bicycle after many years away. After a few minutes of fumbling, the muscle memory clicked in. But there was a difference now: my skills have improved significantly. I worked my way through the entire sonata, pausing occasionally to hone a passage, but for the most part, I just read it, as I would read a passage from the Bible. Yes, the notes, the chords, the rhythms were familiar, but I was coming to this after a long absence; even so, my fingers felt at home, and now they could do much of what used to daunt me with aplomb.

It felt great. I know it was far from great playing--I was often too loud (as I tend to be when I'm working on something difficult), my tempos were mostly significantly slower than what they should be, and I made a lot of mistakes. But I played it, and I loved playing it, and I did not at any time feel like I was playing beyond my ability. It was like putting my running shoes on after a long layoff, and discovering that I could actually run faster than before (which is definitely not how it's been working with running).

So I'll be back, Ludwig. I'll take another stab at the "Waldstein," that 200-year-old hard rock sonata. Maybe I'll even dip into the "Apassionata." Hell, maybe I'll have another go at working my way through all 32 of these puppies. I probably don't have another marathon in me, but I do have half a lifetime ahead to get to know these masterpieces better--and maybe, just maybe, get one of them, every movement of it, polished enough to play it in front of an audience.

That's not as much of a stretch as you might think. Beethoven was the greatest improviser of his day; and improvising at the piano has become my bread and butter. What could be more fitting than dusting off a 200 year old improvisation, and playing it for an audience of improvisers?

Stay tuned.


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